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Humming a Tussle song is hard work. Trying to sing any track from Cream Cuts, the San Francisco quartet’s third full-length, without using a plosive is the kind of quasi-spiritual drum-guru pursuit to which Mickey Hart would dedicate three years of his life and an elaborate book. Which is to say that rhythm is more important to Tussle than melody, and the band plumbs the possibilities of a 4/4 pulse—two drummers and a bassist, plus a host of synthesizers, samplers, and electro-junk—to make Cream Cuts a kind of post-punk Drums of Passion (albeit without vocals). Tussle’s priorities haven’t shifted much since its 2004 debut, Kling Klang, despite some personnel changes (bassist Andy Cabic amicably departed from full-time membership in 2005 to concentrate on his airy-fairy folk band, Vetiver, replaced by Tomonori Yasuda). Most of Cream Cuts still draws from instrumental rock’s typical forefathers, specifically Jamaican dub production, German motorik beats, and the cowbell figures of ’70s New York disco. After the title track’s single minute of noodly funk, Tussle lays into “Saturnism,” an epic seven-minute house jam adorned by junkyard percussion and gurgling samples. Here rim shots are slurred by echo, and throbbing synths pulse to the steady four-on-the-floor thump of a kick drum. For a moment the song abruptly cuts off, disappearing down a rabbit hole and reemerging saturated in rippling tape delay, and Cream Cuts works best when Tussle embraces its urges to break the flow. “Titan,” for instance, swerves off the Autobahn and into uncharted territory no less than three times. The band builds a hypnotic Afrobeat groove, then pulls the plug and reboots the song with a more urgent boogie-fueled spirit; they then smash that beat to bits, leaving only the chirping of crickets; the relative silence is then replaced with a clamorous tribal drum-gasm that burns with all the purpose of an incense stick at the world’s rankest drum circle. With no tunes, chords, or choruses, Cream Cuts takes a few listens to pound its way into your long-term memory. There are, after all, only so many good hooks that can be divined out of a cowbell. But the sacrifice of hummability for rhythm has an upside—few albums are so easy to dance to.
Tussle performs at Comet Ping Pong on Sunday, Sept. 14.